The Dark Side of “Same Same but Different”

By Nicolas Camara

Anyone who’s been to South East Asia is familiar with the expression Same Same but Different. It’s a phrase that applies to anything that is sold in street markets, as it is almost impossible to find a genuine piece of clothing. The seller will try to sell you a pair of MAPU shoes instead of the PUMAs you were after and exclaim “Same Same but Different”, you’ll both laugh and make the deal because they are dirt cheap. Affordability is what drives these black markets, and Same Same but Different can be applied to any kind of produce no matter where you find yourself in the world. It stops being funny when your health is at risk.

1Through an INTERPOL-Europol global raid (i.e. Operation Opson III), more than 1,200 tonnes of adulterated food and nearly 430,000 litres of counterfeit beverages were seized in raids carried-out through December 2013 and January 2014. Some of the produce included: 131,000 litres of oil and vinegar, 80,000 biscuits and chocolates, 20 tonnes of spices, 186 tonnes of cereals, 45 tonnes of dairy products and 42 litres of honey. It’s surprising to think that the piece of meat you’re about to eat isn’t actually beef, but pork or even rat meat, or that the cookie that you decided to reward yourself despite its over-sugary content is even more unhealthy than you already knew. Often you won’t realise you’re buying an adulterate product since the packaging is so convincing. No one but the producer and distributor knows how these products have been handled. The organized crime networks behind this don’t want to draw attention to themselves as they may lose profits, but the consequences of the poor handling of their product often come to light through health related reports. In 2008, a Chinese milk producer hospitalised 54,000 babies and killed six infants. Many examples can be drawn from China and many developing countries as corruption and weak regulation are common, but Europe’s 2013 horse meat scandal exemplifies the fact that these major health threatening issues are global.


We’ve All Been Fooled

Building public awareness about the shady world that surrounds the consumer is crucial, especially when it comes to already hazardous products such as alcohol (2.5 million people die from alcohol every year). My own naivety led me to some of my worst hangovers whilst living in Vietnam. I came to believe that it was because I was getting old but my taste buds finally made me reason that my Stoli on the rocks wasn’t the drink it pretended to be. In a global scale it’s been played as follows: UK: In 2010, a Polish run factory was producing 24 bottles per minute of fake alcohol, cheating the government from GBP 16 million worth in duties and VAT.  In Scotland, 13,000 litres of vodka were seized in September 2013; Russia: In 2006, it was reported that 42,000 people die each year after consuming counterfeit alcohol. Authorities claim that retailers sold nearly 10 million litres of whiskey that weren’t officially imported. Indonesia: In August and September 2013, 52 people died after consuming fake alcohol. Mexico: 373,880 litres of adulterated alcohol were seized between 2011-2013.


The Alcohol In Your Drink

When I moved to Mexico, I learned about the extent of the illicit alcohol marketand its consequences. Therewere recurrent reports of teenagers dying or ending up in hospital because of alcohol poisoning. I had the experience of working on a project whose purpose was to introduce firm policies for the control of the counterfeit alcohol market. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to follow this investigation and process to the end, many jaw dropping facts were learned regarding the production and distribution of fake alcohol.

While real alcohol contains ethanol, fake alcohol will also include substitutes that range from cleaning fluids to products containing methanol such as antifreeze. In Mexico, an increase in the use of ethyl and methyl alcohol has been seen in the production of illicit alcoholic beverages. The health consequences of ingesting these substances range from headaches and nausea to kidney and liver problems, or even blindness. Moreover, have you thought about the way producers seek the flavour and colour of their products? Raids on production premises have seen the use of food colouring and flavouring fluids that one can find in any supermarket, but other more primitive sites have identified the use of rusty nails for giving the brownish tainted colour to whiskeys and rums. The containers used, range from large barrels to the more homelike type such as bathtubs and toilets. Lab-works on the contents of these preparations have identified the presence of human and animal faeces and other body substances. The modern counterfeit producers will have printing technology to falsify brand tags and duty tags, but otherwise it’s the recycling networks that are the main providers of empty flasks.


Can We Play It Safe?

The consumer can follow different tips to safeguard their health and hinder the activities of counterfeit producers, but this behaviour change may not have as strong an impact as tackling the root of the production chain.

In January of this year, the Mexican regulatory agency (COFEPRIS) published a firm strategy to tackle the illegal production of counterfeit alcohol. By registering and tracing the production, sale and import of ethyl alcohol and methanol and, prohibiting bulk sale to the final consumer of any type of alcohol substance, COFEPRIS seeks to regulate this health threatening black market.

Throughout the year we will witness the impact of this policy, but in the meantime, remember that Same Same but Different applies everywhere in the world. What you can do.

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